The Journal of Jules Renard
This is another of those volumes which purport to do justice to a neglected writer. Jules Renard, who died in 1910 at the age of forty-six, had his moment of fame at the turn of the century with his collection of autobiographical sketches called Poil de Carotte, the basis of which is an Oedipal hate-relationship between mother and son. His output of short prose studies and of plays was quite meager, but he left behind him a Journal, which has become sufficiently well-known to run into at least three major editions: one in the Oeuvres complètes, one in the ordinary Gallimard style of 1935, and a third in the Pléiade series. There are grounds, then, for considering it as a classic, and it seems natural enough that Renard should be brought to the notice of the English-speaking public.
However, this volume hardly represents a satisfactory way of carrying out the operation. The text, as Louise Bogan explains in her Introduction, is only a selection from the original. When a Journal consists entirely of aphorisms and very short reflections or descriptions, the effect is achieved by the mass of tiny impressions; to trim the mass is to risk producing an effect of thinness or bowdlerization. I notice that some of the more disagreeable or indecent jottings have been left out and other entries have actually been shortened by the translator. Renard, who was not blessed with a lavish literary nature, does not gain by being truncated. The original itself is really an abridgement. According to Paul Léautaud, who had the information from the first editor, Bachelin, Madame Renard cut out two thirds of the manuscript, because of details about illicit love affairs that she had not been aware of during her husband’s lifetime. If this is true, Renard has been doubly curtailed before he reaches the English-speaking reader, and could legitimately complain of being harshly treated by the ladies.
Then, the translation is often unidiomatic and at times frankly incorrect, which is a serious matter in the case of so painstaking a writer as Renard. For instance, we do not say “to have something in the belly” (avoir quelque chose dans le ventre) but “to have something in him,” “to have something to say,” “to have talent,” etc. Nor is the following description of Verlaine an acceptable English sentence: “Above clothes in ruins—a yellow tie, an overcoat that must stick to his flesh in several places—a head out of building stone in process of demolition.”
But the main defect is that Louise Bogan’s Introduction consists of indiscriminate praise, makes no attempt to put Renard into any critical perspective, and includes a number of doubtful statements: e.g., “Hard facts concerning family relationships were not usual in end-of-the-century writing.” A final, meretricious touch is that a quotation from Sartre is used for publicity purpose on the dust-jacket: “Directly or indirectly, Renard is at the origin of contemporary literature.” It is nowhere explained that the sentence is drawn from the brilliant, but ferociously hostile, essay on Renard’s Journal in Situations I and that Sartre accuses Renard of being responsible for negative tendencies in modern literature.
Louise Bogan writes of Renard’s “steadily augmented” reputation in France since his death in 1910. I have noticed no signs of this augmentation; it seems to me, rather, that Renard, from the start, fitted into a little niche and is destined to stay there for all time. He is an excellent subject for disquisitions on literary impotence, realism, preciosity, and the conflict between vanity and talent; he is a good minor writer, whose Journal is at best a nostalgic, puzzled meditation on the fact that he is not a great writer.
As usual, it is impossible to say exactly through what combination of individual temperament, family conditioning, and external literary circumstances he became what he was. Like so many French writers, he emerged from the lower middle class, which is just one, important, degree above the peasants and workers. His father was an engineer concerned with the building of railways, and his mother always had a maid to do the rough work and serve at table. But he was, in the first place, a country boy surrounded by peasants, and he always retained something of his local accent and peasant dourness. Perhaps it is wrong to say that he “emerged” from the lower middle class. At the age of seventeen or eighteen, he discovered his vocation as a writer and went to live in Paris on a small allowance, with the hope of either making money through literature (like Zola, say), or of finding (like Huysmans) some bureaucratic sinecure that would allow him to write in his spare time. The first entries in his Journal, which he began in 1887 at the age of twenty-three, show that he was aware of being no torrential Zola. After a false start in poetry and failing to find a satisfactory and lasting bread-and-butter job, he made the acquaintance of a girl of seventeen with a house in Paris and a small fortune. He married her when he was twenty-four, through affection, certainly, but perhaps also partly through interest. His basic livelihood was thus ensured and his subsequent earnings from literature, journalism, and the theater were extras that bolstered up his middle-class standard of living. For the rest of his life he divided his time between literary circles in Paris and his house in the country, where he lived as a small gentleman-farmer with two or three servants.
Perhaps Renard’s retreat into security through marriage was a mistake which cushioned him off from the strains and stresses that would have broadened his talent. His Journal shows that he was never really satisfied, and was always reproaching himself with laziness and a feeling of unfulfillment. On the other hand, had he not taken refuge in middle-class comfort, he might have written nothing at all, especially since he had been permanently affected by an unhappy childhood. It could be argued that he had only one vital subject—his mother whom he hated—and that since she lived until the last year of his own life, he was never able to get her fully into perspective and to exorcise her by devoting a whole book to her, as he had intended.
His best work seems to me to be undoubtedly the one that made him famous, Poil de Carotte, a collection of short sketches in which he enshrined the mute hostility between his father and mother, his mother’s vicious persecution of himself and an old maid-servant, the complexities of his own sadistic, boyish nature, and all the inarticulate uneasiness of family life, as seen from the angle of the child. The book, although so short, is a minor classic, vibrating with discreet intensity.
Its quality is due to his temperament, no doubt, but Renard was also writing at the end of the “Realist” and “Naturalist” period and, being a literal-minded person, he took Realism seriously as an ideal of truth, which he contrasted with the distortions of the Romantic imagination. We can see from the Journal that he never got his attitude on this score quite straight; he keeps talking about the need to put down the “truth,” yet he also shows a recurrent taste for preciosity, and the contemporary he seems to have most admired was Edmond Rostand, whose neo-Romantic flamboyance is now generally considered to be hollow. For the most part, however, Renard was determined to set down the truth as he saw it, and the more deflating and unpalatable it was, the greater the likelihood of its genuineness. In debunking family affection and sexual love, he remains short-winded; he refused to give sordidness and disillusion that imaginatively splendid arrangement that was Zola’s distinctive form of art. The small scope of Poil de Carotte does not matter, since the book expresses a child’s view of the world, which is by definition limited and fragmentary. In the later works, the narrowness of vision seems to be a deliberate restricting of a talent for writing to minor subjects, or more precisely, to the minor treatment of a few subjects which, in other hands, could have been dealt with quite differently.
Some critics have spoken very highly of L’Ecornifleur, a short novel, based apparently on Renard’s own experiences, before his marriage, as a “sponger” on credulous bourgeois culture-snobs. It is a sweetly acid little story about an impoverished pseudopoet who is kept for a few months by a middle-class couple and half seduces the wife and a niece. Although it is delicately written and contains, in a diffused form, the uneasy melancholy of someone who does not know what to do with life, it cannot be seriously classed among the outstanding novels of the nineteenth century. The figure of the bourgeois, M. Vernet, is just another, mild version of the conventional Philistine lambasted by so many Romantic and post-Romantic writers. The “sponger” is a failed artist with a wry smile; he does not bear comparison with the other great failures in the literature of the century, because he is incapable of deep concern about other people or of any general artistic or social ambition; he has committed spiritual suicide, as it were, before the story begins, and everything that happens to him has a dim, posthumous flavor.
In his other short sketches, of which he published a few collections, Renard falls back on rural subjects, that is, on descriptions of landscapes, birds, and animals, or anecdotes about peasants, and in particular about the old countryman and his wife who worked for the Renard household. He keeps repeating that most writers have romanticized the peasant and the country and that he, who has known both from childhood, will describe things as they really are. Certainly, he produces some vivid little pictures in a plain, meticulous style which makes them obvious anthology pieces for primary schools. But I do not think he altogether avoids the pitfalls of sentimentality, because he frequently personalizes the landscape and, while debunking the poetic myth of some animals in a rather obvious way (e.g., the swan), he gives others the pretty, varnished appearance they might have in an old-fashioned children’s story-book. He has sometimes been compared to La Fontaine, but one cannot feel behind his prose that consistent hardness which makes the seventeenth-century fabulist so diamantine a poet.
I may appear to have said comparatively little, so far, about the Journal itself. The reason is that it is hardly comprehensible without a knowledge of Renard’s background and literary works. The larger part of it consists of jottings about his family that might have gone into a sequel to Poil de Carotte, or about the Parisian milieu touched on in L’Ecornifleur, or about the countryside described in Histoires naturelles or other collections of sketches. It is essentially the sort of notebook a writer keeps to soothe his conscience when he is not building up his impressions and insights into an extended work of art. Some such note-books, in their very fragmentariness, have a suggestive power that surpasses the organized effect of a finished work. We may suppose, for example, that Pascal might have been less famous if he had had time to rewrite his Pensées as the complete apology for Christianity he had intended. Paul Valéry’s Cahiers give a better impression of the drama and tragedy of a mind trying to think than most systematic works of philosophy. Similarly, Renard’s Journal makes him a rather bigger man than one might expect from any of his finished works, except Poil de Carotte. It shows him aware of, and puzzled by, the contradictions in his character; wondering, for instance, why he should be so pleased to receive the ribbon of the Legion of Honor or to be elected to the Académie Goncourt when, in other moods, he had the typically nineteenth-century artist’s disdain for collective approval. It is also a touching document about the mind of a minor writer who is straining to understand why his inspiration is so weak and fitful, why he cannot get through to himself: “Between my brain and me, there is always a layer I cannot penetrate.” Sartre calls him l’homme ligoté (the bound man) and argues that he was misled by positivism into too simple and cramping a view of reality. While I agree with Sartre’s superb analysis of the philosophical weaknesses in Renard’s imagery, I doubt whether positivism was the major cause, because he was not sufficiently intellectual to be influenced to that extent by a philosophical doctrine. Apart from the psychological reasons already mentioned, it may be, of course, that the mortal illness that was presumably incubating in him over the years was, in itself, sufficient explanation of the shrinking, rather than development, of his powers.
In the last resort, his Journal boils down to a collection of desolate aphorisms:—“Imagine life without death. Every day, you would try to kill yourself out of despair”; “Truth on earth is to falsehood what a pin’s head is to the earth”; “Let us not forget that the world makes no sense.” Some people may think that such maxims put him into the ranks of the great French pessimists; I doubt it, however, because pessimism is only tolerable and interesting when tensed against vitality, and in Renard’s case, this only occurs in Poil de Carotte.